15 seconds into his fight with Mike Davis on the UFC Tampa preliminary card, Michael Bisping raised his concerns about Thomas Gifford.
“Gifford has got to be careful. He’s eating too many shots too soon.”
One minute later, the momentum still had not shifted.
“Wow! Thomas Gifford is tough! He doesn’t take a back step! He just got cracked four or five times, kneed in the stomach twice and stood right there.”
Someone in Gifford’s corner, which included vaunted coach Marc Montoya and his father, screamed at him to, ‘bite down on that mouthpiece”.
Bisping, who had seen Gifford lose a lopsided unanimous decision to Roosevelt Roberts in his UFC debut, was experiencing deja vu.
“It’s hard to watch… His chin’s on display, but his coach Marc Montoya was saying the entire plan was to not take as much damage in this fight because it’s not conducive to a long career, to winning fights, to mental health, to brain power – you name it! Getting hit is not a good idea.”
With the scent of blood in his nostrils, Davis went in for the kill towards the end of the opening round. After staggering Gifford with a seismic overhand right, he ripped a hook to the body, secured a clinch and drove a knee up top. A follow-up left hook sent Gifford reeling to the fence.
Davis punished him with heavy knees and punches until Gifford was weak enough to haul down to the mat. There, he continued to dominate while referee Andrew Glenn warned, ‘You gotta get out of there! You gotta get out of there!”
Brendan FitzGerald was concerned in the commentary booth.
“How much more can Gifford take? Does he make the bell?”
Hard to watch
He was saved by the bell. Bisping thought his corner should consider coming to his rescue next time things got dicey.
“Surprise, surprise, this highlight is going to show Mike Davis hitting Thomas Gifford in the face because that happened A LOT that round. I mean, look at this. These are heavy blows bouncing his head all over the place like a pinball machine. The referee’s got to be close to stopping that fight.”
“His coaches have got to be close to thinking, ‘You know what, throw the towel in,’ because, for a young fighter, that is not a good thing to go through. It’s going to take years off their career, potentially years off his life… that was hard to watch!”
Trevor Wittman, who was part of the broadcast team for the event, is no stranger to these kinds of situations. The top coach received a lot of plaudits when he threw in the towel for Nate Marquardt when the middleweight was on course to being finished by Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 188.
Wittman echoed Bisping’s sentiments.
“Just like Michael said, there’s a time to get him to the next fight and say, ‘Hey, this style just wasn’t good. I had an off-night, but you have to pay attention to that. Maybe he knows something that he might see from a grappling stance, but again, the damage! When his neck went loose in those four or five shots, those were the hard ones to watch.”
Bisping, who may very well be the toughest fighter in UFC history, had just about seen enough. He set a deadline for Gifford to change his destiny.
“At some point, you’ve got to think, ‘Stop this fight… stop this fight.’ And I’d say that time is… well, let’s see the next 30 seconds.”
The striking differential wasn’t as wide in the second round, but there was a clear winner. Gifford needed a finish in the final stanza to win the fight. A finish seemed likely, but not from his end.
And his corner knew it.
Gifford stumbled back to his corner, his face undulating from all the punishment it absorbed.
Montoya: “How do you feel, buddy?”
“Horrible,” he replied without hesitation.
Montoya: “Listen, you want to keep fighting?”
On this occasion, Gifford took his time with this response.
Montoya cautioned that he wouldn’t be able to continue unless he started blending his strikes with his takedowns. To make sure Gifford was all-in, he asked again.
“Should we stop this fight now?”
“No sir,” was the response issued.
Less than 15 seconds into the final round, Davis had him taking a backward step with an alacritous one-two. Meanwhile, Bisping gave his assessment of the exchange between coach and fighter.
“No real fighter live on TV is going to say to the world, ‘No, I don’t want to fight anymore. I want to quit.’ That’s the coach’s job. It’s the coach’s job to say, ‘You know what son, unfortunately tonight’s not your night. I know it’s going to break your heart. I know you want to go out there and continue to fight, but you’re going to lose this fight anyway unless some miracle happens.’
“But even if the miracle does happen and I’m proven wrong, he shouldn’t be taking anymore shots right now. Simple. And I’m sorry to his coaches and his father for saying that in case they think I’m… whatever word they want to use.”
‘The Count’ hammered home his point that fighters sometimes need to be protected from themselves. There is zero quit in Gifford, which was to his own detriment in Tampa.
“We’re fighters, that’s what we do. Inherently, it’s built within us. We have hearts but we don’t necessarily have the brains. We do have brains, but the fighting mentality takes over.”
When Gifford tried to heed his corner’s advice, he wound up on his back. Picking himself up was rewarded with a hook and a head kick by Davis. When Gifford latched onto a leg later in the round, he found himself looking up at the arena lights again while sharp elbows rained down on his skull.
Gifford then went down twice from leg kicks. Davis stood off, briefly placed his hands on his hips and went on the offensive again.
Bisping didn’t want this annihilation to continue.
No one did.
“I’m going to say something controversial here, but the referee needs to man up. He needs to step in and do his job, if I’m honest. The referee’s job is to protect the fighter and right now, it’s one way traffic. This isn’t a fight. I’m sorry, Thomas.”
10 seconds later, Davis landed the coup de grace. A thunderous left-right combo sent Gifford crashing face-first into the mat. In truth, the contest had been over a long time already.
“Happy now? That fight should have been stopped a long time ago… I did not like to see that knockout. That knockout was due way too long… That’s not doing Thomas Gifford any favours. I know his coach would want the best for him, but the referee and his coaches should have stopped that fight.”
Enough is enough
Referee Andrew Glenn was pulled from a scheduled duty later that night. The Florida state athletic commission relieved him of officiating the welterweight bout between Niko Price and James Vick because of how he oversaw the Davis vs Gifford fight. Herb Dean stepped in to replace him, which was fortunate considering the violent nature in which that fight ended.
It is difficult to argue against this decision. However, the finger of blame cannot be solely pointed at the ref.
Gifford’s corner have an obligation to save their fighter from doing untold damage to his health. In this sport, there are unrealistic expectations about comebacks. For every Darren Elkins digging deep to turn the tide and put Mirsad Bektic away after being dominated for two-and-half rounds, there are 50-plus Thomas Giffords getting rendered unconscious after taking an absolute pummeling.
The pay structure of the UFC may also discourage coaches from ending fights early. Corners don’t want to deny their fighters the opportunity to earn their full pay by giving them no chance of securing their win bonus on top of their show money.
Another lingering problem in MMA is how much we praise fighters for taking a beating. We call them warriors, we say they have iron chins, we commend their gameness, their toughness, their heart. However, we can do this without auditing their durability,
Gifford is clearly tough. He earned his spot in the UFC after competing in over 25 professional fights on the regional scene. He was simply outmatched against Davis. The gameplan failed when he tried to implement it. The result was never beyond doubt. It was a lost cause. Even if his corner had stopped the fight, Gifford would have been just as tough as he is now.
Thankfully, Gifford confirmed on social media after the fight that aside from being ‘a little bruised up,’ he is in good health. He can count his blessings. The next fighter that is allowed to take that kind of hammering as his coaches and the referee watch on may not be so lucky.
We’ve had two high-profile cases of boxers dying from brain injuries they sustained inside the ring this year. If we allow these types of one-sided beatings inside the cage, another MMA fighter will be added to that list.
It’s only a matter of time.